1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 89%). This was the best splody film of the year, and maybe Marvel Studios’ best to date. A perfect blend of 1970s spy-thriller, 1980s action-hero romp, and over-the-top summer blockbuster, this movie had it all. Chris Evans remains perfectly cast as Steve Rogers, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo brought a visceral edge to the action that kept audiences on the edge of their seats. The supporting cast was also top-notch. (One of the best scenes belonged solely to Sam Jackson as Nick Fury.) Every moment of this movie was crammed full of wonderful moments and Easter eggs for Marvel fans, and it is a testament to the skill of the storytelling that the more ridiculous plot elements feel organic. This is where the strength of Marvel’s shared universe begins to shine—small elements that were set up in Cap’s previous film and those of his fellow Avengers pay off here. You don’t have to have seen those films to appreciate this movie, but having seen them enriches the experience. Everyone knows about the famous elevator scene, but two other scenes in particular stood out to me. First, his one-man stealth assault in his first mission in the film is fast-paced and unforgiving, finally showing us what Captain America is capable of when firing on all cylinders. Second, his chase scene with the Winter Soldier is so kinetic I think it knocked the wind out of me as I watched it. Cap is so intense as he pursues his mark that he runs right through walls or leaves huge dents in them as he careens around them. The payoff of that scene is shocking and amazing—just like this film overall.
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 73%). This was the first American adaptation of Godzilla, so I was not sure what to expect. (OK, I realize there was a 1998 American film called Godzilla, but let’s be realistic, shall we? That was a Matthew Broderick comedy about a giant iguana, not a Godzilla movie. In Japan, they claimed the iguana creature was a different monster—and then Godzilla killed it. I rest my case.) I need not have worried. Director Gareth Edwards didn’t do the best job with the so-so human drama in this film, but human drama is always filler in a kaiju film. The monster drama, on the other hand, built up steadily to a glorious payoff in the film’s final act. I and the rest of the theater cheered loudly.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 90%). A lot of people predicted this would be Marvel Studios’ first cinematic failure. Instead, it became a runaway success and the highest-grossing comic book movie of the year. (Suck it, a lot of people.) It would be wrong to call this a superhero film, as it was more of a Star Wars type space adventure story. And it was Marvel’s most comedic effort to date. Those elements certainly scored points with mass audiences, and I’m sure that the pure on-screen charm of leading man Chris Pratt (“Star-Lord”) and his talking tree (“Groot”) and raccoon (“Rocket”) sidekicks didn’t hurt. Marvel struck gold with this franchise, and the consensus now is that they could turn Howard the Duck into a billion-dollar franchise if they wanted to.
4. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Result: EPIC FAIL (Tomatometer 53%). I almost feel bad for kicking Sony when they’re down, but the simple fact of the matter is that Sony needs some tough love when it comes to Spider-Man. They have the world’s most popular superhero in their film stable, and they consistently lose money on him. And deservedly so. TASM2 was a mess. Thanks to the Sony Hack, we now know that the entire point of the movie was to kill off Gwen Stacey, something Marvel Studios recommended against doing so soon, since she was a popular character, and a move which turned out to alienate a lot of viewers. The rest of the plot was shoehorned in, in random pieces, to fit a variety of conflicting studio directives, the most ridiculous of which was to sow seeds for an entire cinematic universe—that has now been scrapped because of how disjointed and awful this film was. The sad thing is that there were elements of a good story here, but Sony didn’t know what they had and refused to listen to any of Marvel Studios’ notes to improve the product. Sony and Marvel are supposedly in talks now on a deal that would allow Marvel to reclaim creative control while splitting the costs and profits of these films with Sony. Whatever Marvel asks for, Sony, take the deal. The first step is admitting you have a problem! What should have been on my list: Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. (Tomatometer 90%). Who would have thought that Tom Cruise had another sci-fi hit left in him? Apparently no one thought that, but he did, and this sleeper got great reviews, although it barely made a dent at the box office due to poor marketing.
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 92%). Fox remains a step behind Marvel Studios in crafting a compelling and audience-friendly superhero world. But only a step. This film successfully performed a soft reboot on the franchise by using time travel to hit the reset button on the less popular films in the franchise (X-Men: The Last Stand and at least part of X-Men Origins: Wolverine), thereby erasing past sins and opening the X-Men universe to tons of new storytelling possibilities. Plus, it was a great film in and of itself, ranking alongside X-Men: First Class, X2: X-Men United and The Wolverine as one of the best in the series.
6. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 60%). I haven’t seen this yet (although I plan to this week), but I have it on authority that it is a fitting end to the trilogy and perhaps the best of the three. And while it should be noted that The Hobbit was bloated, overly reliant on digital effects, and nowhere near as good as the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was nevertheless pure delight to return to Middle Earth.
7. Big Hero 6
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 89%). Disney made good on their promise to translate this Marvel Comics property into an animated feature, giving us the best family-oriented superhero film since The Incredibles. (Given that Disney own both properties, I wonder if we could see a cross-over in the future…?)
8. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 66%). With the Hunger Games, the books get weaker as the series progresses, but the films have gotten better in relation to the books. I think the film makers have a better handle on this world they have created than the author did. Still, it is strange that they turned the final—and shortest—book into a two-parter. I haven’t seen this one either, and probably won’t until Part 2 comes out. But from what I hear, it’s fine. Just the captivating presence of Jennifer Lawrence is enough to keep me going on this series.
9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 91%). The original Planet of the Apes in 1968 was cheesy—but delicious. All attempts to expand the franchise, however, were miserable failures until Rise of the Planet of the Apes completely redefined it in 2011. So I wondered if Dawn would follow in its predecessor’s success or sink back into miserable failure. With a new director and almost a completely new cast, I suspected the latter, but this film delivered in spades. The POTA franchise is alive and well, and I cannot wait for the next installment. Long live Caesar! Long live the Apes!
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 73%). Can Christopher Nolan do any wrong? That has yet to be proven. His first outing in pure sci-fi gives us yet another gorgeous example of his skill with cinematography, and the acting and storytelling are also compelling. It’s not his best work, but it is delightful, as always. One thing to note: Nolan was intent on using practical effects and avoiding green screens wherever possible—so much so that rather than adding the stars of space in post-production, he projected them onto the background of the actual soundstage, so the actors would feel that they were in space as they did their scenes.
11. Jupiter Ascending
Result: INCOMPLETE (Tomatometer n/a). This movie was delayed to February 6, 2015. Out of pure coincidence, the planet Jupiter is at opposition (its closest approach to Earth) on that date. What should have been on my list: Snowpiercer (Tomatometer 95%). This film was actually released in 2013—everywhere but in the United States. Here, distribution rights disputes caused its delay and it opened in extremely limited release. A major success elsewhere, you should see it if you like dystopian sci-fi. Starring Chris Evans (Captain America) as a passenger aboard a post-apocalyptic train, it tells a riveting, intense and highly original story.
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 48%). This film actually received a lot of hate from both critics and fans alike, but I loved it. I think the important thing to remember as you’re watching it is that it is not a remake of the 1987 classic by the same name. Actually, that would have been a disaster, because the 1987 RoboCop is one of the universe’s most perfect films and does not need to be remade. Instead, renowned Brazilian director José Padilha, in his first English-language film, takes the underlying RoboCop concept and crafts an entirely new story around it. And it is a great story. Instead of being rooted in 1980s paranoia, the new tale expands upon modern-day concerns and does it well. It’s not a perfect film, but there is a lot to love here. A lot of detail was put into every scene. For example, there is a fight in the dark where the two different sides are using two different kinds of night vision, and the effect is amazing. What’s more, unlike the original, this one exists in a more realistic and fully-realized world, perfect to explore in more detail in future installments. And I hope we do get sequels to this.
Bonus Wins: I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable the kid-oriented The Lego Movie (Tomatometer 96%) was, and I look forward to future installments for this franchise. Meanwhile, Gone Girl (Tomatometer 88%) was a magnificent thriller from director David Fincher and removed all doubt that Ben Affleck has the acting chops to be the new Batman.
Finally, lest I forget, Sharknado 2: The Second One was, if anything, even more glorious than the first installment.
Coming soon: my choices for splody movies most likely to please in 2015...